posted 15 Sep 2009 in Volume 12 Issue 10
Listen and help learn
Choosing your words carefully can help to generate genuine enthusiasm for organisational change. Stephen Denning reports.
"Human communication has its own set of very unusual and counterintuitive rules".
Leaders in todayís firms increasingly find themselves in situations where they need to persuade their staff and colleagues to change. Often the change involves new ways of doing things that are fundamentally at odds with the way things have been done in the past. As a result, the change is not always welcomed. The audience is often difficult, sceptical, cynical, or even hostile to what they are about to say. And if buy-in is grudging or low, implementing the change will be slow, difficult and costly. By contrast, if leaders can inspire genuine enthusiasm for change, implementation can be quick, smooth and cheap. But for most leaders, inspiring enthusiasm will usually entail a fundamental shift in the way they approach communication. It involves learning the secret language of leadership.
The types of changes that firms face are diverse, including:
Making adjustments to those sectors where the commoditisation of work has set in
Outsourcing some aspects of work to reduce costs;
Enhancing the firmís responsiveness to specific client needs;
Introducing new information technology systems;
Increasing the sharing of knowledge across organisational boundaries both within the firm and beyond;
Persuading highly-skilled and proud individual staff to give up some of their prized autonomy and collaborate with others;Persuading staff to adopt sensible work/life balance practices that will help retain talent;
Attracting the best talent to join the firm;
Ensuring that the workplace is attractive to employees who are diverse in terms of gender, age, religion, ethnicity, location, income, language or lifestyle;
Ensuring that ethical standards are not jeopardised by efforts to bring in new work with high fees;
Implementing a merger quickly and smoothly; and,
Coping with a downturn in business.
The challenge here, however, isnít merely one of inducing staff to go along with the change or to comply grudgingly. Itís one of inspiring staff to embrace change with energy and enthusiasm so that they become champions and induce others to join in. To accomplish this, several steps are involved.
Set aside traditional communication methods
If you think back to the last time you tried to persuade people to change, you probably followed a familiar pattern. You explained the problem you were dealing with, then you analysed the options, and your conclusion followed from your analysis of the options. Define the problem. Analyse the problem. Recommend a solution.
If this was your model, it wasnít unusual. Itís the Ďnormalí, the Ďcommon senseí, the Ďrationalí way of communicating. And it works well enough when the aim is merely to pass information on to people who want to hear it.
Many psychological studies have shown that when we believe something firmly, our immediate reaction to information indicating the opposite is to jump to the conclusion that there must be something wrong with the source. Itís a phenomenon known as the confirmation bias. It has been studied and verified by psychologists in many different contexts.
If leaders offer reasons at the outset of a communication to an audience that is at all sceptical, cynical or hostile, they are likely to activate the confirmation bias, and the reasons for change will be reinterpreted as reasons not to change. Worse, we also know that scepticism and cynicism are contagious and can quickly turn into epidemics.
So, although we might imagine that giving a presentation offering rational reasons for change will not do any harm, we need to think again. Giving a lecture full of abstract reasons arguing for change can quickly turn an audience into an army of strident cynics.
Understand the listenerís story
The second thing to realise is that leaders need to start, not from where they are, but rather from where the audience is. Leaders usually spend a lot of time thinking about the content of what they are going to say. Itís just as important to understand the story that the audience is currently living.
Leaders need to work hard to develop a deep feel for the world of their listeners in all its peculiarity, its strangeness and its stubborn differences. They have to stop thinking of people as obstacles, as resisters, as malcontents, as stupid or obstinate, irresponsible or ill-willed, but rather as people we deeply want to understand Ė people whose world in its own way makes sense, albeit in an incomplete fashion. And the best way to do that is to work on understanding the listenerís story.
Leaders need to figure out why the listeners donít see our change idea as positively as they do. Within what story do they find themselves cornered? What artificial walls have the listeners constructed around their current existence so that they donít see the same future as we do? What imaginary constraints are hampering them from envisioning something different? If leaders can understand these aspects of the audienceís story, crafting a new story that will resonate with them is often relatively simple.
Inspiring people to want to change
Successful leaders approach communication fundamentally differently from the traditional approach. They communicate first, by getting attention, then by stimulating desire for change, and only after desire is stimulated, by reinforcing it with reasons.
Here the sequence is: get attention, stimulate desire and reinforce with reasons.
When the language of leadership is deployed in this sequence, it can inspire enduring enthusiasm for a cause and spark action to start implementing it.
Of course, words alone wonít work. The language of leadership is most effective when certain enabling conditions are in place. Leaders must exhibit a truthful commitment to a clear, inspiring idea of change. Actions and words have to be congruent. When actions and words are in sync, with the language of leadership deployed in the right sequence, transformational leadership takes off.
Getting the audienceís attention
If leaders donít get peopleís attention, what is the point in even trying to communicate? If people arenít listening, speakers are simply wasting their breath. And in most settings today people simply arenít listening in an attentive way.
How do you get peopleís attention? The main elements are that the communication is:
Relevant to the listener; and,
Social scientists have shown that negative messages are more attention grabbing than positive messages. Among the more effective ways to get the audienceís attention are:
Stories about the audienceís problems (Ďthese problems are seriousÖí);
Stories about the likely trajectory of the audienceís problems (Ďthese problems are getting worse Öí); and
A surprising question or challenge in an area of interest to the audience.
Getting attention isnít particularly difficult. However, itís important to avoid using the traditional openings, such as explaining the process by which the conclusions have been reached or giving background information on the subject under discussion.
Eliciting desire for a different future
Failing to distinguish between getting attention and stimulating desire can have disastrous results. Thatís because what gets peopleís attention doesnít typically stimulate a desire to act. Whereas getting attention is generally done more effectively with negative content, getting people to want to do something different needs to accentuate the positive. Negative stories, questions or challenges wake us up. They activate the reptilian brain, suggesting fight or flight. They start us thinking, but they also generate worry, anxiety and caution. They donít stimulate enthusiastic action.
The task here isnít about imposing the leaderís will on an audience, which, in any event, is impossible. Itís about enabling the audience to see possibilities that they have hitherto missed. It means creating the capability in the audience to see the world and their relations with others for themselves in a new and more truthful light.
The idea that storytelling might be important for leadership has been gaining recognition in recent years. But the kinds of stories that are effective for leaders in stimulating desire for change are very different from what most people expect. Some of the most effective stories arenít big, flamboyant, theatrical epics; well-told stories with the sights and sounds and smells of the context all faithfully evoked. Stories told with a bullhorn donít necessarily elicit desire for change.
The right form of story to elicit desire is generally a springboard story Ė that is, a true story about the past, where the change, or an analogous change, has already happened and the story is told in a simple, minimalist manner.
The example in the box to the right is from a context similar to that faced by many law firms Ė a consulting company that Iíll call ĎGlobal Consultingí. It was trying to energise staff around the idea of becoming a truly global corporation. To communicate the change idea, the leader crafted a story based on an example where the change had already happened.
ĎAs you know, Global Consulting aspires to become the leading provider of consulting services in its field. So weíre trying to implement lots of changes to make that happen. Let me tell you about one recent example of how this is working out.
Itís about James Truscott, who works for us in
What James did in this case (when he heard about the invitation to bid for this world-wide account) was contact all the people in Global who deal with British Engines around the world. He brought them all together as a team, and together they developed Globalís pitch to British as a global team with him at the forefront.
As it turned out, a competitor undercut us with a lower price, but James went back to British. He didnít lower our price, but he went back to the client accompanied by experts from Global to explain why we were more expensive, so that in fact British could see that they were in fact getting a better deal.
And guess what? We won that multi-million pound engagement with British. It was a huge accomplishment. It showed us the power of acting together as a global organisation, rather than acting from individual country perspectives. Just think what a company Global could be if all of us would join up together internally and think about the client from a global perspective, so that we could see how to treat the client better as a whole. Just imagine the impact on our bottom line.í
The story is based on a specific example where the change has already taken place, in this case in the same organisation. Such stories can be astoundingly powerful by sparking a new story in the mind of the listener. Itís this new story that the listeners generate for themselves, which connects at an emotional level and leads to action. In the new story, listeners begin to imagine a new future.
Reinforcing with reasons
An emotional connection on its own isnít enough though. Reasons are still relevant. The desire for change can wane unless it is supported and reinforced by compelling reasons that the change makes sense and should be sustained. But where the reasons are placed in a presentation is crucial.
If the reasons come after an emotional connection has been established with the change idea, the reasons can reinforce it, because now listeners are actively searching for reasons to support a decision they have, in principle, already taken.
These three steps Ė getting attention, stimulating desire for change and reinforcing the desire for change with reasons Ė are the same whatever the leadership setting or challenge. Of the three steps, the middle step Ė stimulating desire for change Ė is the most important, because it generates desire for change. If transformational leaders do only one thing, they should make sure they stimulate desire for change.
Stephen Denning is the author of several books on leadership, innovation and business narrative, and was formerly the programme director of knowledge management at the World Bank. In this article, he drew on his book The Secret Language of Leadership (Jossey-Bass 2007). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
KIM Legal, Volume 3 Issue 3
1. Gladwell, M., The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference,